Mention the word chef, and the mind idly conjures up an image of a hearty man in a tall hat and apron speckled with tomato sauce. Slicing through the stereotypes with a fine carving knife is the self-made Ritu Dalmia, currently counted amongst the country’s top female chefs. Having poured her life’s savings into building her dream restaurant at the age of 21, Dalmia’s name has since become synonymous with Italian cuisine in India. Today, she juggles running the massively popular Italian haunt, Diva, along with Latitude 28, Depot 29 and Café Diva, all located in Delhi.
In case you were running out of reasons to love her, factor in the news that she openly declared her homosexuality at the age of 23 and was one of the four people from the LGBT community who filed a PIL against Article 377 last June.
We bring you all the important life lessons Dalmia has learned, straight from the non-conformist’s table.
Don’t be afraid to dream big
“I loved Italian cuisine but never thought I would take it as a profession. I liked to cook and then just from one day to another, I decided I was good enough to cook in a restaurant. It has been a long journey, and I am very proud to say this education still continues.”
Be your own worst critic
MezzaLuna, the passion project that she opened at the age of 21, was unfortunately ahead of its time, and had a run of only two years. “As a creative person, it's a tough call to decide when it’s time to start anew. But for me, it is imperative that if something is not working, it needs to be wiped clean straight away. There is a creative chef in me, but there is also a business woman. And I know from experience that if you continue running a place which isn’t working with your head in the clouds, it is only a matter of time before your entire capital will be wiped out.”
Stay true to what you know well
Refusing to be disheartened by MezzaLuna’s brevity, Dalmia then took the flavours of Indian cuisine to London with Vama, which had a profitable run of 13 years. However, she refused to play to the gallery and tweak her offering to lure in European tastebuds. “I am a purist, so I did not change any recipes in Vama; all I did was pick the dishes that suited the English palette as well.”
Don’t try to rush success
“Dear silly, over-confident 16-year-old Ritu, You may think that you know it all, but you don’t; there are some things that you learn only with time and age, and this is something you cannot rush. Don’t be in such a hurry to grow up; you will regret it later.”
Break that damn glass ceiling
“The male-female ratio in the kitchen has been slowly and steadily skewing in our favour. I have many women chef friends all over the world, and all of us have a naughty grin on our faces when we are recognised for what we do in this male-dominated industry. In Diva, I was the only woman in the kitchen for the longest time. Now, we have over 10 of them. That sounds like a good start to me.”